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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Mind of an Engineer

When I was a kid I loved taking things apart.  Pop a couple screws off and you could view the inner workings of just about anything, from a clock to a computer.  Given my dad’s engineering background, we had a constant supply of gadgets that we could get our hands on (and in).

Kids now are growing up side-by-side with technology.  My daughter learned how to unlock my iphone at 7 months and was using her ipad games before she could crawl. But growing up knowing how to use technology, is not the same as wanting to know how it works.

Engineers need to know how things work, how they fit together. So do doctors. So do chemists. So do musicians. So do psychologists. Having the “mind of an engineer”  is not about pushing a specific career path, it is about a way of thinking. It is about a desire to know more than just what you see on the surface.

To cultivate the mind of a engineer, we need to provide opportunities for our kids to explore and problem solve. Technology is great, but we need to create an environment for open ended, hands-on, exploration as well. Below are a few classic childhood activities that encourage kids to think like an engineer.

Puzzle it Out
Puzzles can take many forms and give good practice with problem solving. There are such a wide range of puzzles available, from the basic shape in hole, to jigsaw puzzles and 3-D puzzles.  Tangrams also provide an interesting challenge for more advance puzzlers. The challenge and reward of solving a puzzle is also a natural motivator for building persistence.

Build, Build, Build
Not to take the engineer thing too literally, but the simple action of building a block tower can teach your child about structure, proportion, symmetry, and gravity.  You can add interest by creating a wall of fame to mark highest towers built or giving specific challenges like only building with triangles.

Take Things Apart
I’m not suggesting that you give your 2 year old a computer to disassemble! However, it is great to provide our kids with opportunities to safely take things apart and try to reassemble them. Simple things like boxes, or a truck with wheels that pop on, can be great starting points. Even replacing batteries, learning how to connect the xbox, or changing a lightbulb is a learning experience.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Learning is for the Young and Old(ish)

The other day my husband suggested we try out a free on-line course offered by MIT. It’s a class about circuits -- basically a beginning level electrical engineering class. I have to admit, my first reaction was something like, “Circuits? Really? I already suffered through that in high school...”

One of the things I admire about my husband is his unquenchable desire to learn. He has a degree is physics, so he certainly doesn’t need a beginning level circuits class. He just thought it would be cool to try out the new learning format that MIT is developing. 

I realize that if I want my daughter to see learning as something worth pursuing, I need to pursue it myself. I love to read and I love learning new things, but sometimes I get so busy that I stop pursuing learning. My husband will ask me to watch a documentary or a TED video with him and I will turn him down to watch a sitcom. Like anything else in life, I have to make a conscience effort to seek new opportunities to learn. (Not that we don’t also need a break to be entertained!)

I also realize that I am drawn to learning about specific things (like education) and I tend to avoid others (like circuits). I don’t think that I need to become an expert at everything out there, but I don’t want to limit myself too much either. The more I learn out of my comfort zone, the more knowledge I have to inspire my daughter’s learning.

I now have a renewed commitment to learning new things. In fact, next on my list is gardening, which I have previously shunned and despised. I am a known plant killer, but I intend to change that. If anyone has advice or resources to share please don’t hesitate because I need all the help I can get.

This garden looked much better when we bought the house

If you are interested in exploring a new intellectual field, here are a handful of great places to start:
TED - short, usually entertaining, and very informative, videos of people speaking on just about everything imaginable
Khan Academy - I honestly think this is going to help reshape the way we think of education - short videos the equivalent of classroom lectures
MIT - Imagine being able to get an MIT education for free - its crazy - only one class this spring but more to come
Itunes University - download free podcasts of University lectures and more

Friday, March 2, 2012

Playing with Patterns

Did you know that understanding patterns is a building block for understanding our number system, geometry and algebra?

Playing with patterns is a way to explore an important math concept with your child, while keeping it fun and hands-on. This is, however, a challenging concept for toddlers. Make sure to keep the activities appropriate to your individual child, and don’t feel discouraged if it takes many tries before you see any understanding.

There are several types of patterns that are common in mathematics (and the world). For each type, here are a few examples for practice. These ideas are just a starting point, so, if you have others, I would love to hear them.

Repeating Patterns
This is the simplest type of pattern and the best starting point. Examples of commonly taught repeating patterns are: ABAB, AABB, ABCA, AABC

Practice with objects
Choose 2 (or 3) objects that your child can easily tell apart. You could try: quarters & pennies, beans & macaroni, or red & blue legos.  Line the objects up in a pattern, repeating the pattern several times, and ask your child to place the next item in the pattern. (click here to see an example of using goldfish)

Practice with sounds and movements
Once you feel your child has mastered a specific pattern visually you can add an interesting twist with a sound or movement pattern, like clap & stomp, or kiss & growl.

Practice using numeric values
Create patterns using differing lengths of stacked legos. For instance, 2 legos, 4 legos, 2 legos, 4 legos.

Additive Patterns
An additive pattern is a numerical pattern where the numbers increase by a certain amount. An example would be 1, 3, 5, (the numbers are increasing by 2). This is a more advanced concept, perhaps beyond a toddler’s grasp.

Practice with blocks or legos
Create an additive pattern by stacking blocks or legos in increasing heights (e.g. 2 legos, 4 legos, 6 legos).

Practice with coins
Create an additive pattern using coins arranged in rectangle shapes, with the height being the value added. An example is, 2 coins arranged vertically, then 4 coins arranged in a square, then 6 coins arranged 2 high and 3 wide. This creates a very clear visual of value being added.

Geometric Patterns
A classic example of a geometric pattern is tile. Kitchen floors, bathrooms, and sidewalks all use geometric patterns. Do you know which shapes can be tiled without leaving gaps? Start playing with these patterns and you will find out.

Practice using pattern blocks
Pattern blocks are a set of shapes that are specifically sized to fit when arranged into patterns. Start by pulling out 1 shape that can fit seamlessly together (like squares) and ask your child to tile a sheet of paper with no gaps. Then try 2 shapes (like hexagons and triangles). Once your child is comfortable with tiling, hand over all the shapes to explore.

Practice by doing a scavenger hunt
As I mentioned, geometric patterns are all over, so make it a game to find them in the house or while out. Tile floors and counters in restaurants have lots of patterns.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How the Word "Smart" Can Hurt Our Kids

Every time my daughter says a new word, sings a song, or identifies a letter, the words “you are so SMART” come to my lips. Why would any parent not praise their child for being smart?

Research has shown that the simple difference between attributing a child’s academic performance to their intelligence, verses to their hard work, can affect their approach to learning. In one study, children who were praised for being smart (after doing well on a test) became risk adverse, and actually showed a decrease in performance. While children who were praised for working hard took on more difficult tasks and showed growth in their performance. *

This makes sense when you consider the message that each statement sends the child. A child who equates achievement with being smart, will equate failure with the opposite, which can create a fear of failure. In contrast, a child who sees achievement as the result of their own effort will understand that failure is something to learn from and overcome.

Kids who are afraid of failing and looking “not smart”, will shy away from challenges where they might fail, thus stunting their ability to learn. If something seems difficult, they might assume that they are not smart enough. This not only keeps them from pushing themselves and learning through challenge, it can also destroy their confidence in the very thing they were praised for, their intelligence.

In general, people will develop one of two mindsets, fixed or growth. People with a fixed mindset believe that they were born with a certain intelligence and they can not do anything to change it. People with a growth mindset believe that their intelligence is determined by their own effort. Which mindset you adopt shades how you view challenges, failures, success, and ultimately what you consider possible.

Kids need to be praised, all the time, but we need to consider the praise we give them. When we tell kids they are smart, without pointing to factors that influence their intelligence, like hard work, we encourage a fixed mindset. This in turn takes away their motivation to persist when something seems “too hard”. Numerous books touch on this topic, Brain Rules, Outliers, The Teaching Gap, and Einstein Didn’t Use Flashcards, to name a few.

Even knowing this I still tell my daughter she is smart. It’s hard not to. But I also make a conscience effort to praise the aspects of her character that influence her intelligence. Here are a few examples of the type of praise I give.

“Wow, you had to try over and over to get that puzzle piece in, but you didn’t give up!”
“You have been getting better and better at that song every day as you practice.”
“You listened so carefully, and then repeated it so well.”
“That is the first time you did that all by yourself, you worked so hard to figure it out!”

* One on-line reference to the mentioned study can be found here

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Raising a Little Mathematician

When I was a kid my dad’s code name on the CB radio was “mathematician”, and I was “little mathematician”. It is no wonder that every field I considered studying had math at the center of it. I wouldn’t say math was always easy, but it always made sense.

Raising a “little mathematician” is somewhat of a mystery to a lot of parents. Many parents feel more confident working on reading skills with their child than developing math sense in their child. Marketers have jumped in with a host of products to fill the gap, but still our kids struggle.

Flashcards, worksheets and games are not the answer. Getting kids to understand math is not about how many facts they can recite; it's about how they think. When you engage your child in math activities, your focus will influence how they approach math long term. Consider the following:

Focus on concepts, not memorizing facts
Facts are not bad, they just aren’t the whole picture. Activities that are exploratory and hands on tend to be more conceptual.

Focus on mastery and understanding
Math builds on itself, so at every level there needs to be understanding before moving on. A "right" answer does not always equal understanding. Take the time to talk about math. Ask "how" and "why" to find out what your child is thinking. Challange your child's answers. A well defended answer indicates mastery.

Focus on character
Its not just about the concepts, its also about building curiosity, reasoning, persistence and problem solving.  We can’t just give our kids all the answers.  Sometimes kids will struggle to get a concept, but getting it for themselves is true learning and gives kids confidence to keep at math as it gets harder.

My parents and their little mathematician

Sunday, February 19, 2012

To Get Dirty or Not To Get Dirty

I can’t count how many times I have heard that kids learn by making messes. I want to let my daughter explore, and create, but sometimes I hesitate, not sure exactly how messy she really needs to get. After all I will be the one cleaning it up.

I like to have a clean house, and a clean kid. Actually, Brie likes things clean too, but only sometimes. When she is really into something it tends to get messy. Research has shown over and over that kids learn best when they engage all their senses, and, early on, touch is especially important. So, I know sometimes I just need to keep my hands to myself and let her do her thing.

We just got back from two weeks in Australia and looking at the pictures I realize that a lot of her experiences there require a tolerance for mess. I’m glad I didn’t totally give in to my need for clean and order so that she could have some once in a lifetime experiences. Here's our trip according to Brie's messes.

This is my daughter surrounded by 6 kangaroos, on a rainy day, in a pen full of, well, I'll leave that to your imagination. Did I mention the kangaroos are eating out of her hand? Yep, amazing.

That is us petting a wild animal. Ok, a Koala born in a zoo is probably not that wild, but she wasn't exactly clean. Pretty cute though.

Brie insisted on playing in the rain at the Harbor in Sydney while the rest of us just wanted to stay dry. Amid the splishing and splashing I got this shot of their famous bridge, somewhat obscured by my only slightly less famous daughter.

This was a random beach stop, at the beginning of our road trip. We were not in swim suits and we had three more hours of driving afterward, but if you can see how Brie is smiling you know it was totally worth it.

This is on day 2 of our road trip. By the time we left this spot we were all completely covered in sand, with nowhere to change, nothing to change into and again, three more hours of driving. But that view, seriously, could change your life.

We picked this up in a cave. Kind of gross. I still don't know what it is exactly, but it provided our anatomy lesson for the day.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mother Knows Best?

Right now, as I type, there are 17 additional people sleeping under the same roof as Brie and I. Every bedroom is full, every couch is a bed, and there are mattresses covering much of the spare floor space (including the kitchen). In the morning we will have even more people joining us for breakfast. My aunt (in-law) actually had an outdoor kitchen built to help accommodate the influx of guests.

Altogether we represent 8 cities, 4 countries, and a span of more than 70 years from youngest to oldest.  I am so grateful that Brie is here with me.  More than just teaching her to appreciate other languages, food and cultures, I hope that it will help shape her character and how she approaches learning.

One characteristic of a learner is that they value, instead of dismiss, different approaches to a question.

Sometimes the students I tutor get overwhelmed if I encourage them to consider more than one way to solve a problem. They often tell me “that’s not how my teacher does it”. They simply want one method that they can be comfortable with, any information beyond that seems unnecessary.

In contrast, a learner will want to consider a question from many different angles, in order to understand it better and to find the best way to answer it. The process of weighing different approaches increases critical thinking and understanding. Then, the next time a similar question is posed, it won’t just be about following a format or procedure.

Each of my aunties has a different approach to cooking. As I learn from each of them, I increase my understanding of ingredients, spices, techniques and flavor combinations. I could just follow recipes, but I wouldn’t understand how each cooking technique affects the texture and the flavor, so I wouldn’t understand how to adjust the recipe to get my desired outcome.

As parents it is instinctive to teach our kids to do things the way we do them, but we need to leave room for them consider alternatives, to develop their own critical thinking skills.  I have to let go of trying to teach my daughter the “best” way of doing everything, from building a tower, to making a valentine's day card. It is up to her to figure that out for herself. Maybe she will do it differently from me, but then again, maybe she is aiming for a different outcome anyway.